“Do you like Chinese food?” – this is usually asked by someone when you are enjoying a large plate of Chinese food, or if you’re speaking to a Chinese person and neither of you has anything interesting to say.
“Wow! You look just like _____” – insert actor or actress you look nothing like.
“Oh, you are very good with chopsticks!” – a compliment every foreigner receives at some point and, in a way, a right of passage.
Yes, today’s topic is that common compliment, the one about chopsticks, and what it means. On the surface, it’s sort of goofy and perplexing. I mean, chopsticks really aren’t that hard to use. Why wouldn’t I be good with chopsticks? What kind of god-awful motor skills do you think I have? Like, because I’m American, I’m only capable of stabbing things with a fork?
It’s also a bit awkward because it draws a clear distinction between whoever says it and the foreigner receiving the compliment. It would be sort of like if I walked into a McDonald’s in America and saw an Asian guy eating a hamburger and totally freaked out about it.
Perhaps a little overboard, but the chopsticks compliment is in essence divisive. Trust me, I’m aware that I’m very other. We don’t need to point it out yet again. It’s only slightly better than when I say some basic thing in broken Mandarin and am given the thumbs up for it.
But all that is minor. The truth is, the annoying aspects of the chopstick compliment are nothing when compared to the importance of it. It’s an acknowledgement, a sign of approval. I believe it signals that I have arrived. That despite my awful Mandarin and the fact that none of the shirts here fit me, I have mastered something that helps me fit in here in China at least a little bit. Chopsticks. I may never be fully accepted as a part of this society, but at least I can pick up a noodle.
Chopsticks have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since the new semester at my school began. See, in the past, the school cafeteria only had chopsticks, and every teacher used them whether they were adept at it or not. This year, however, a tray of forks and spoons suddenly appeared. I was aghast. It was a kind gesture, I suppose, to supply the new foreign teachers with the cutlery of their homeland. Yet, at the same time, it saddened me, especially when I noticed the new teachers were largely opting for the fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks.
“I can’t use chopsticks,” some of them would say. And that made sense. If you can’t use chopsticks, that could lead to a messy lunch. Although at one point in time I was new, and I sort of got initiated into chopsticks by fire, and I guess I think everyone should kind of do that. In my mind, I tried to imagine being a foreigner living in Asia and never getting the chopstick compliment. It would be like, I suppose, moving to America and living there for decades without ever getting the finger.
You just really couldn’t call it home, I don’t think.
Which brings us to The Chopstick Delusion. This is the idea that forms in the mind of a western person living in Asia that, due to competence in a few areas of daily life, they have been assimilated into the culture that surrounds them to at least some degree. I can use chopsticks. I can order food in a restaurant. I am able to read some signs. I know how to count. Therefore I am not an outsider but someone that belongs here. I can one day feel at home in this country.
And that might be true – if the person continues to work at it. To learn the language, understand the customs, count past ten. But what I see a lot – especially with myself – is that once those basic things are conquered, The Chopstick Delusion sets in and you think you’ve got it made. Why am I judgmental against the new teachers who insist on sticking with the fork? Because I feel they won’t be deserving of their delusion, I think. By giving up the fork, I’ve made a choice to go with the flow, to do like the Romans. And it annoys me to think that the fork people will eventually have Chopstick Delusions of their own without ever having mastered chopsticks. The same way, I guess, people who have learned to speak Mandarin view me.
Because that’s probably how it works. The hierarchy of expat adaptation. For every foreigner who can’t speak the language, I’m sure there’s some other foreign shaking his head, just like the chopstick crowd scoffs at the fork people, and I suppose the fork people, eating their rice and their kung pao chicken, might feel a tad superior to the foreigners sitting in KFC eating fried chicken with their fingers.